How a $200K Debt Empowered Me to Learn for Fun
When I attended Penn State University, I was paying the tuition with student loans. Furthermore, where necessary, I used credit cards to cover any gaps that might have emerged during the semester or study abroad. For the most part, I knew what I was doing. That is, I knew I was going to have to pay this back for a very long time. It was that thought that drove how I approached all of my 5 years at university.
For those 5 years, I explored any and every interest that might have come my way. I figured, if I have to pay this bill one day, I better get my money’s worth. Here are a few of the ways I made these some of the best years of my life.
Math was my Happy Place
I almost minored in math. I fell short by one class, however, that wasn’t the goal. My major required only one math course – business calculus. However, going into my freshman year, I had tested out of Calculus I and I had already taken Calculus II in high school. Under the guidance of my high school math teacher, I decided to retake Calculus II. He said it would be a great way to get off to a strong start and just like when you watch a movie the second time, I would pick up things I missed the first time.
Ahead of my second semester, I met with a guidance counselor and he advised me to stop taking other math classes. He said I would be risking my grade unnecessarily. We ended up getting into a small argument about this and I never returned to see another guidance counselor until senior year when we had business school faculty assigned to us. I proceeded to take Calculus II, III, IV, Linear Algebra, and Probability Theory. For me, these classes were my happy place, where I could disconnect from business courses.
Falling in Love with Art History
Thanks to one of the greatest professors I’ve ever had, Charlotte Houghton, I went deeper into art history. After taking her Intro to Art History course, I fell in love with art and proceeded to take two more art history courses and a sculpting course. Two of those 4 courses took place in Italy where I had the opportunity to explore the art in person. These courses didn’t count for anything since I already had enough electives. But once again, if I have to pay for this for the next couple of decades, I better make the most of it.
Taking Hits in Martial Arts
During one of my physical education electives, Tae Kwon Do, I formed a strong relationship with the instructor who invited me to attend classes (at no charge) at his private academy. A few nights a week, I went out to his academy and would always stay after everyone left for extra sparring. He kicked and punched me pretty hard, but I loved it! This wasn’t part of the university but thanks to a course at the university I had the opportunity to extend the learning experience beyond the campus.
Unofficially Majoring in Marketing
I signed up for the finance and international business degree programs. However, I ended up falling in love with marketing along the way. According to the business school, I could technically switch, but at some delay and possible additional cost. I decided to find another way.
In the end, I became very involved with the marketing club, ultimately serving as president in my final year at Penn State. I was the first non-marketing major to run the marketing club of over 400 student members. By the time graduation approached, most of the marketing faculty knew me quite well and barely anyone from the finance department knew who I was. Turns out, by doing it this way, I was able to avoid changing majors on paper, but in every other way, I was a marketing major. In fact, my first job out of college was joining the marketing leadership development program for Ingeroll-Rand. They said they only took marketing majors, but it turns out my resume screamed marketing thanks to the marketing club experience.
Plus a Sprinkle of Leadership Development
When I was still an up and coming member of the marketing club, I was invited by the then president to join her and a small group of members in a 2-day leadership retreat sponsored by the school. This turned out to be one of the best experiences because it sparked my interest in leadership development. From there, I made the decision to run for leadership positions in the marketing club and begin working my way up to the role of president. This inspired me to negotiate my way into advanced courses in the psychology and management majors related to leadership. I didn’t meet the pre-requisites, but it turns out if you show up to their offices enough, eventually the department admins give in and let you enroll in their “major-only” courses.
Why I Pursued All of My Interests
Even though guidance counselors told me I should stick to the template semester schedules, I decided to pursue any and all interests I had. The ones mentioned above are just a few of the big ones. Knowing that I was going to owe over $200,000 after interest, I set out to squeeze every last drop of value from that super-sized university. That was the best thing about Penn State – just about any interest you could have, you could explore.
Knowing I would be paying for it later empowered me to go against the advice of the guidance counselors, mentors, and some close family and friends.
While I didn’t know it at the time, in the end, this pursuit of learning on my terms prepared me to eventually pursue a career on my terms. Taking my first major career leap into reinvention in 2008 was made possible by the joy and lack of regret I experienced pursuing interests during my university years.
Today, all of those experiences continue to be a part of me and position me to do unique and valuable work. While I could not know this at the time, I felt strongly that I was doing the right thing. Just because things don’t always make sense in the moment, doesn’t mean they won’t make sense later.
What difficult or challenging situation are you experiencing that can you reposition in order to empower you instead of holding you back?